Nearly 50 people gathered outside of the former Philadelphia Board of Education building on March 19 to celebrate the unveiling of a new state marker commemorating the 1967 Black student walkout, which protested racial injustice within the Philadelphia public school system.
Five university students — College first year Taryn Flaherty, and four other first years from different schools: Alison Fortenberry, Aden Gonzales, Nia Weeks, and Tatiana Bennett — applied for the state marker in 2019. They all spoke at the ceremony, alongside individuals who participated in the original walkouts 55 years ago, reflecting on the bravery of the students and activists and remembering the violence of the day.
On the day of the walkout — Nov. 17, 1967 — roughly 3,000 Philadelphia students peacefully marched from their schools to the building. They were armed with 25 demands — which included that the district hire more Black teachers, allow African dress, and teach African American history. Police under former Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo responded violently to the student demands, resulting in the serious injury of 22 people and 57 arrests.
Dr. Krystal Strong, a Penn Graduate School of Education professor and a mentor to the group, spoke during the event. She shared her experience working with the group, even having them contribute to a lesson for her graduate students, and the importance of the 1967 Black student walkouts.
For Flaherty, the process of acquiring the state marker began five years ago when attending the 50-year anniversary event of the 1967 Black student walkouts. She said that when choosing a topic for the National History Day Contest, a competition held for high school students across the United States, the walkout stuck with her.
She added that generations of students of color have benefited from the protests.
“I saw that their continual fight and struggle for racial justice in schools, educational inequality, and injustice related so much now,” Flaherty said. “I found a lot of inspiration in how strong they were, facing so much violence and still pushing forward.”
Flaherty said she researched the project for months, visiting Temple University’s Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection archives, interviewing those who had participated in the walkouts, and reading texts on the event.
Flaherty’s competition submission won first prize in Pennsylvania and second in the nation in 2019.
Through her research, Flaherty noticed the lack of tangible recognition for the event, with local schools rarely ever teaching about the historical moment — inspiring her effort to acquire a state marker.
Flaherty connected with four other high school classmates — Fortenberry, Gonzales, Weeks, and Bennett — to work on a state marker application. The five young women, then high school juniors at Julia R. Masterman School, submitted a 10-page paper complete with photos and newspaper articles as supporting documents, resulting in an application over 100 pages long.
Fortenberry, who is now a first year at Princeton University, emphasized the symbolic importance of acquiring recognition for the 1967 Black student walkouts.
“African American history is really impactful in the city and the state, and it’s really underrepresented in the amount of state markers that we have in Pennsylvania,” Fortenberry said.
Flaherty said that others had previously applied for a state marker in the early 2000s, but it was not initially accepted due to a stated lack of historical significance. Philadelphia later became the first major school district to make African American history a graduation requirement in 2005.
Planning the commemoration event took a number of months, delayed further by COVID-19, Flaherty said. Councilwoman Helen Gym played a key role in helping the group to organize the commemoration event. Kenny Chiu, a College first year and intern at Gym’s office, said he really enjoyed the event.
“The state marker was a beautiful event,” Chiu said. “When they pulled down the cover of the state marker, it was a really happy moment. There were a lot of cameras that were recording and a lot of smiles and a lot of clapping.”